Turkey Mill

turkey mill kent

Turkey Mill, Kent, England

TURKEY MILL was the original J Whatman paper mill and so perhaps the most important papermill in Western papermaking history. Amongst other feats, wove paper was invented here for Baskerville by Whatman.
Whatman paper was made in two places under license - at Turkey Mill by the Hollingworths and at another place not too far away, Springfield Mill by Balston (a former partner of the Hollingworth brothers).
The J Whatman Turkey Mill watermark was then sold to Balston's Springfield Mill in 1859s but production of fine quality paper continued at Turkey Mill including the introduction of one of the first papermaking machines.
The mill operated until 1976 when the economy and the 3 day working week forced closure.
The following has been taken from the current Turkey Mill website which is now a business park and wedding venue.

Turkey Mill was fulling cloth (cloth thickening) in the seventeenth century and was recorded as a fulling mill between the years 1629 and 1671. Little is known about its history prior to this time and one cannot be certain how it acquired the name ‘Turkey’ Mill. However, Turkey red dye processing was used in connection with fulling and it is thought that for a short period the mill was used for grinding Turkey wheat, a corn from India. It had several other fairly shortlived names at various times; Powle Mill (1629), Overloppe Mill (1640) and Gill’s Mill (1732) but the name Turkey first appears in the will of Richard Harris in 1739.

In 1640 the mill, then comprising 10 acres was sold by Simon Smythe to John Fletcher for £493. Five years later Fletcher bought Sawyerscroft, an adjacent five acre property for £95. These 15 acres comprised the Turkey Mill estate until 140 years later when James Whatman II again enlarged it. In 1657, John Fletcher’s son, Richard, conveyed the freehold to John Cripps on the occasion of the latter’s marriage to Fletcher’s daughter, Catherine. In 1640, Thomas Tolherst was already its tenant and in 1650 Richard Fletcher granted him a new lease for 21 years. Sometime between 1671 and 1695 George Gill of Boxley became the tenant for on Cripps death in 1695 the lease was renewed to Gill by Cripps widow Dorothy for 41 years on the condition that he spent £200 within the next two years on improving the buildings which included replacing the old drying loft with a new one. During his ownership, John Cripps mortgaged the mill as a paper mill (the earliest mention of its conversion from fulling).

In 1716 Gill surrendered the lease to his son William who later experienced severe financial problems, being declared bankrupt in 1729 and again in 1731. Ownership of the mill passed to James Brooke in 1735 and in 1736 the tenancy was taken on by Richard Harris who was already making paper at Hollingbourne (Old) Mill further upstream on the River Len. This had been built and later leased to him by James Whatman, a tanner of Loose. Richard Harris bought Turkey Mill in 1738 and was in the course of entirely rebuilding it when he died in 1739, leaving to his widow Ann, “all that now built messuage wherein I now dwell, and also the buildings intended for a papermill where the old mill was, which was called Turkey Mill”.

The following year, 1740, Ann Harris married James Whatman and they took up residence in Turkey Court (part of Turkey Mill) which had been built towards the end of the seventeenth century under George Gill’s tenancy. Whatman completed the rebuilding works and under his stewardship the mill became the largest in the country and established an international reputation for producing fine quality ‘wove’ paper.

The development of ‘wove’ paper, producing paper on a woven mesh material pioneered by Whatman, resulted in a sheet of paper having a much less irregular surface than laid paper which improved immeasurably the quality of printed work and the range of printing techniques possible, its smooth surface lacked the furrows of traditional laid paper which caused pigment to puddle on the page. In addition it was soaked in a gelatin bath of hoofs and bones to make it extremely strong and less absorbent. Paint moved easily over its surface and multiple layers could be applied and then wiped, scratched, or scraped away without damaging the paper. These complicated subtractive techniques were brought to the highest level of virtuosity by J M W Turner who worked regularly on Whatman paper. Whatman’s trials were conducted in 1754 in conjunction with the famous printer William Baskerville.

In 1739 war broke out between France and Spain which stopped the importing of fine notepaper from the continent. The war ended in 1748 but by then the English papermakers had secured the market and at the time of Whatman’s death in 1759, Turkey Mill had become the largest papermill in the country.

James’s widow, Ann, continued to run the mill until their son, also called James, reached 21. He too was responsible for, or was associated with, many important developments in the field of papermaking, for example, the use of blue smalts to improve the brightness of white paper, the use of chlorine to bleach coloured rags, the production of the largest sheets of paper ever made by hand, the famous ‘Antiquarian’, named for the Society of Antiquaries that commissioned it, measured 53 x 31 inches and required nine men to make it using a lever system. Prior to this development the size of a piece of paper was limited to the span of a vatman’s arms. The Society of Antiquaries needed the paper in order to make a print depicting Henry VIII meeting Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

James Whatman the Younger also introduced the use of metal beaters to reduce the high power consumption synonymous with the crucial stage of fibre treatment in beaters. Under his leadership Turkey Mill’s importance continued to grow until the name of Whatman was respected around the world.

As early as the 1760’s when wove paper was not yet widely available to artists, Thomas Gainsborough was anxious to use it for his watercolours. In 1767 he wrote to bookseller James Dodsley in hope of obtaining some “it being what I have long been in search of for making wash’d Drawings upon … There is so little impression of the wires, and those so very fine, that the surface is like vellum” Later Gainsborough wrote, “I beg you to accept my sincerest thanks for the favour you have done me concerning the paper for drawings. I had set my heart upon getting some of it, as it is so completely what I have long been in search of, upon my honour I would give a guinea a quire for a dozen quires of it”.

Whatman paper was used by JMW Turner, John Robert Cozens, John Sell Cotman and Cornelius Varley. William Blake used it for four of his illuminated books, the public being informed that they were printed on “the most beautiful wove paper that could be procured”. Indeed, many of the masterpieces of Romantic watercolour painting in the early nineteenth century are on paper bearing the watermark “J. Whatman” or “J. Whatman/Turkey Mill”.

Throughout history Heads of State and world leaders have shown a particular penchant for Whatman paper. Napoleon used Whatman paper for writing his will; George Washington signed many state documents on Whatman paper and Queen Victoria chose Whatman for her personal correspondence. In the 1930’s Soviet leaders used Whatman paper to publish their five year plan for the future of the USSR, while the peace treaty with Japan was signed on Whatman paper at the close of World War II.

In the same year, 1767, aged only 26, James Whatman became High Sheriff of Kent and completed the extension to Turkey Court by adding a West Wing comprising two large rooms, a dining room and drawing room, for entertaining.

James Whatman had married Sarah Stanley who was much above him socially and they had two daughters, Camilla and Laetitia but after her death in 1776 James re-married Susanna Bosanquet, daughter of a Hamburg Merchant and a Director of the East India company, Jacob Bosanquet. They had one son, also called James. In 1774 Whatman took on an apprentice, William Balston, a student at the Writing School of Christ’s Hospital, whom he trained as a papermaker. Whatman thought highly of Balston and looked upon him as his successor.

However, in 1790 James Whatman II suffered a stroke and his protégé, William Balston, took over managing much of the mill. But in 1794 and much to the surprise of everyone including Balston, James Whatman decided to sell the business and Turkey Mill was sold to brothers Thomas, Robert and Finch Hollingworth of Maidstone for £32,000, a substantial sum at the time.

Turkey Mill, as painted in 1794

The Hollingworth brothers originally operated in partnership with William Balston but Balston, who had fully expected to take over the running of Turkey Mill from James Whatman, withdrew from the partnership in 1805 to set up a new mill at Springfield, Maidstone. In 1806 the copyright of the watermark ‘J Whatman’ was transferred to William Balston, bringing to an end the production of Whatman paper at Turkey Mill. James Whatman II died, aged 57, at his new home ‘Vinters’ (a substantial property on the other side of Ashford Road to Turkey Mill and now demolished which he had acquired in 1783).

In 1859 the Turkey Mill watermark was sold to William Balston’s two sons at Springfield Mill and the paper made thereafter at Turkey Mill was known as “original Turkey Mill” or “O.T.M” and “T and J Hollingworth”. Today, paper watermarked “Whatman” is produced at Springfield Mill, owned by Whatman International plc which produces a range of machine-made watercolour paper as well as scientific filter and forensic papers.

Thomas Hollingworth lived at the mill and after he died Turkey Mill passed to his two sons, Thomas and John, neither of whom married. On their deaths, in 1888 and 1889 respectively, Turkey Mill passed to their nieces, Mrs F E Pitt and Lady George Gordon Lennox. By this time the first paper machine had been installed. Mrs Pitt died in 1906 and her half share passed to her widower Colonel Pitt and when he died in 1913 to Brig. General Thomas Pitt and on his death to Major W T Pitt. When Lady Gordon Lennox died in 1913 her half share passed to her son, Lt Col E B Cook and when he died in 1914 of wounds received at the Battle of Aisne his share passed to his brother, Ralph M Cook and on his death to Captain A R Cook. When Captain A R Cook died Major William Pitt became sole director.

Upon his death in 1976 Turkey Mill was bought by Wiggins Teape and closed down, the production being transferred to Stoneywood, near Aberdeen, so bringing to an end over 280 years of continuous paper making at Turkey Mill, a record unsurpassed by any other British mill. 

 As luck would have it, my paper nerdism includes collecting books of paper specimens including this 1920s beauty from which I've taken the paragraph below.

original turkey mill

ON the banks of the River Len, in a picturesque valley not far from Maidstone in Kent, Turkey Mill has been producing paper continuously for more than 200 years. Nearly 130 years ago the business was acquired by the present proprietors, Messrs. Hollingworth & Co., in whose hands the productions of the Mill have achieved the world-wide reputation they enjoy for distinctive and dependable quality.

It was in 1719 that George Gill, a member of an old Boxley (Kent) family, acquired two Fulling Mills (for compressing and shrinking woollen cloth) and converted them into paper mills. One was employed in making White Paper and the other Brown Wrappers.

Some 22 years later William Gill, who had succeeded his father, sold the mills to James Whatman (originator of the watermark still familiar to users of drawing paper.) Whatman rebuilt them and called them Turkey Mill -- a name handed down as a heritage and famous to-day all over the world through the well-known watermark Original Turkey Mill, Kent."

Towards the close of the 18th Century Finch Hollingworth, a member of the old Cheshire family of de Hollingworth of Hollingworth Hall, erected a paper mill on the Len at Padsole in the ownership of which his brothers Thomas and Robert subsequently shared. Shortly afterwards they purchased Turkey Mill from James Whatman.

Thomas Hollingworth, the last of the three, was succeeded by his sons Thomas and John, who took up their residence at Turkey Mill and managed their own property.


  • Peter Dunckel

    Reading old U.S. family correspondence (1861) the paper is impressed “Superfine Turkey Mills London”, so pleased to find the article.

  • Daveyd

    I’ve just read your article after searching for the origins of a box of writing paper saying" Hollingworth rag bond. Treble thick" with DISCE FERENDA PATI. On the crest. Could be a connection?

  • Louisa bailey

    I live in Maidstone and have just read your article on Turkey Mill with great interest. thank you

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